The idea of polycentrism was originated by Palmiro Togliatti to describe the variety of political parties in different countries that were all united in their overarching philosophy – communism. He called this unity in diversity. This idea was later translated to city planning and came to describe a region with several centers as opposed to a region with a single downtown.
Here in Metropolitan Phoenix (or the Valley of the Sun) with cities like Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Glendale, and others developing their own city centers, there is no doubt we live in a polycentric region. In other words, people in the suburbs don’t look to Downtown Phoenix as their only city center. They look to their own downtowns for a walkable, local and often times historic experience.
For example, Downtown Chandler is going through a remarkable revival from a sleepy, abandoned and dilapidated area to a vibrant, fully occupied, mixed-use, and desirable place to hang out. This transformation, in large part due to the presence of tech company Gangplank and visionary developers like Niels Kriepke, is working wonders for the home values in Chandler because all of a sudden the city has a unique downtown experience to offer its residents, a place that is not tremendously far to travel and a place they can call their own.
It’s not a new development that we have a polycentric region though. Many of the cities in our region have always had their own downtowns, but it is not until recently that some of these cities have begun to really cultivate and leverage their urban centers.
For many years, living in the suburbs of Phoenix precluded a dense, walkable and unique experience. It was mostly about driving to work, driving home and driving to the nearest shopping complex where you could find the same big box stores and chains as you could anywhere in the country. But now, people who live in the suburbs are craving a different and unique experience that is only offered by a dense downtown, an experience that includes local restaurants, the occasional farmers market, some public space to hang out with the family, and other local stores all within a walkable radius.
This is good news! Why? Because our suburbs aren’t going anywhere. So instead of just being a part of the sprawl, why not embrace the polycentric model, where each city has it’s own unique center? Chris Wass, founding partner here at Firefly, says, “the only way a place this vast can work is to have multiple nodes of density.” And we are finally seeing the emergence of real nodes of density in the various suburbs of Phoenix, most notably in Gilbert, Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale.
A rising tide lifts all boats. A strong polycentric region is not detrimental to Downtown Phoenix, it’s great for Downtown Phoenix – something that Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton agrees with. People outside of their cars enjoying their own city centers will actually attract suburbanites to Downtown Phoenix that may never have come here before. Plus the added resiliency, vitality and creative capital of a strong polycentric region will most certainly give a much needed boost Downtown Phoenix.
But the only way our multiple nodes of density can work to help the entire region is by being connected in multi-modal ways. Connectivity by way of Light Rail has already given Downtown Mesa, Downtown Tempe and Downtown Phoenix a major shot in the arm. Now ways to connect to Downtown Chandler, Downtown Gilbert or Downtown Glendale without the use of the car would go a long way in broadening the impact of those individual success stories.
But transit isn’t the only car-free way to connect nodes of density. The canals are proving to be powerful connective ligaments between cities as well. Recently I biked on the Western Canal Path between Tempe and Chandler and it was a wonderful way to travel between the two cities outside of my car. Plus, at the Phoenix Annual Bicycle Summit last weekend, Kerry Wilcoxson unveiled a proposal for 2013 that will establish a bike throughway from Tempe to Central Phoenix on the Grand Canal.
As cities like Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Glendale and Phoenix continue to build their downtowns, and as we find various ways to connect these centers, we will see Metropolitan Phoenix blossom into a buzzing, attractive, and sustainable region. We will have found the unity in diversity that is the crux of a successful polycentric urban model.
Photo credit: Downtown Chandler. Photo by LightRain Images.